|(1) A typical view of Route 35, the main north/south road for the barrier island. With debris covering this road, many municipalities became confined to their local geographical area. (Photos by author unless otherwise noted.)|
By BILL HOPSON
Throughout its history, the “Jersey Shore” has endured many of the northeastern United States’ worst floods, tropical storms, nor’easters, snowstorms, and other natural disasters. To the locals who have lived there for decades, telling the story of a storm or two that have occurred in their lifetime is as much a rite of passage as flip flops, cold pizza at 2:30 a.m., the boardwalk, and photos of you and your friends at the beach.
Historically, instances of Jersey Shore fire departments evacuating their firehouses and physically moving apparatus to the mainland have been few and far between. Most, if not all, Jersey Shore fire departments take pride in not being labeled as the one or two departments that broke the “unwritten code” of “going against history” and evacuated their firehouses while a storm ravaged their communities. Hurricane Sandy never gave many Jersey Shore fire departments the opportunity to decide the course of history; it simply rewrote it for them.
On Sunday night, October 28, as Hurricane Sandy roared toward New Jersey’s coastal counties, its fire departments planned, guessed, and prayed that, like previous storms, the path of destruction would be felt elsewhere and the “barrier island” would once again be spared from the devastation that normally follows after a violent storm has struck.
As the storm approached, the decision to staff individual firehouses may have been based on the previous year’s warning for Hurricane Irene and the long-cited department history. Based on generally accepted protocol, it was not uncommon for Jersey Shore fire departments to open their doors and have apparatus at the ready with a mindset of what the “big deal” was-considering few, if any, firefighters could recall a storm so bad that it affected them in ways never imagined.
Beginning in the early morning hours of October 29 and lasting nearly 30 hours, Hurricane Sandy blasted through the Jersey Shore, historically rearranging its natural position on the coastline and forever changing the tactics and strategy of the fire departments that were assigned to protect it. Among the hardest hit areas were Atlantic, Ocean, and Monmouth Counties. In these areas, not only were these departments taxed beyond their capabilities, but they were also faced with unprecedented devastation. To many longtime firefighters’ disbelief, the safe and secure firehouses they initially responded from quickly transformed into a meeting place where the ocean and the surrounding bays and lakes met. Apparatus bays, meeting rooms, and interior areas of the firehouses were flooded with surge waters that filled firehouses and caused historical damage.
“For us, the decision to evacuate became a matter of common sense. As the storm progressed, we quickly realized the decision to stay vs. go was taken out of our hands. The longer we stayed, the greater the danger our personnel faced. We needed to get out as quickly as we could, with as much as we could, to physically have a fire department. Had we stayed because our history told us we should, we would have lost even more than we already had,” said Chief Bill Giordano, Ocean Beach (NJ) Fire Department.
Fighting a working fire in a commercial building is an accepted challenge for any fire department. Having a commercial building fire taken over by a hurricane was a new situation for many fire departments.
“In the initial hours of the hurricane, we were dispatched for a reported odor investigation,” reports Chief Larry Murray, Ocean Gate (NJ) Fire Department. “On our initial engine’s arrival, we were advised there was a small fire on the second floor of an apartment above a commercial business. While it was raining, the winds from the hurricane had not picked up to the point where we needed to be concerned about the immediate safety of our personnel, who were extinguishing the fire. The flooding we were witnessing was not anything we had not seen before. That all changed in less than a minute.”
As Jersey Shore fire departments began to encounter Sandy, every barrier island fire department realized it was facing never before encountered scenarios, many of which were being played out faster than the departments could react. Along an 18-mile stretch of Long Beach Island and a 13-mile stretch of the Barnegat Bay peninsula, Ocean County fire departments were trying to do what they have always done, while at the same time figuring out how not to become trapped by the rapidly expanding storm.
|(2) Multiple house fires on a single block were common for many fire departments along the barrier island and the mainland. This fire began in the house to the far left and quickly spread to four adjacent structures.|
By the time Sandy finished gashing huge holes on the barrier island, many fire departments frantically scrambled to find a place where they could assemble their apparatus and personnel. Many firehouses were now filled with water and were without electricity or heat. Historic flooding was dominating much of the landscape. As communities were beginning to experience massive power outages, many local firehouses, even those equipped with generators, lost the ability to sustain power on a temporary basis. Before Sandy had passed, nearly every generator was submerged in water or coated with beach sand and debris.
As Sandy physically rearranged the roads and passageways used by local fire departments, the ability to respond to the scene of a burning building became exceptionally difficult. Once-familiar landmarks were immediately replaced with sand drifts, power lines, wreckage from collapsed buildings, and water-lots of water. Where a single house on a single lot once stood, now there was debris from three homes. On street corners where fire hydrants were once located, sinkholes now marked the hydrant footprint. Ocean and bay water now sat where sidewalks, bulkheads, decks, and boardwalks had stood, creating exceptionally hazardous conditions.
“While responding to the reported fire, we had no problem seeing the flames in the original fire building,” says Mystic Island (NJ) Fire Department Chief Bob Shahinian. “By the time we navigated the apparatus through the water on the street, we watched the fire spread from one building to two, from two to four, and before we turned the corner, to five or six buildings at a time. There was no way we were going to let it take the entire block, so we stretched hose for as long as we could before it became too dangerous for us to be outside. After a few minutes, the winds were taking the water in our hoses and moving it in any direction it pleased. We were not going to suppress the amount of fire we encountered.”
“We realized we needed to leave and seek shelter for our personnel and apparatus,” Shahinian continues. “By midafternoon, the eye of the storm was over us, and we knew the backside of the storm would be even worse. We regrouped and realized we were in a world of hurt. We began to plan differently about how we were going to survive the aftermath of the storm.”
|(3) A typical residential roadway on the barrier island immediately after the storm. With roadways crumbled, local fire departments were unable to maneuver apparatus close to collapsed or burning structures. Access to structures was a major tactical concern.|
While many fire departments continued to do what they could with the working fires they had, many mainland and barrier island fire departments were conducting water rescues for residents who had not evacuated.
As Sandy moved up the coast toward New York, the Atlantic Ocean and the waters from Barnegat Bay connected in areas it was thought would be impossible. Huge breaches were now visible in several barrier island communities; the mainland communities near Barnegat Bay recorded historic flooding. At the height of the storm, the flooding became so intense that it forced some residents to swim from their houses to the streets. Kayaks and canoes became the only ways residents could navigate areas of their neighborhoods. The flooding also eliminated any chance that fire apparatus (other than watercraft) had of getting close enough to fight the now multiple fires every community was seeing.
As midday turned into early afternoon, mainland and barrier island fire departments continued to staff their stations and do whatever they could for residents who had not heeded the warning to evacuate. Even as challenges from the storm mounted and fire departments continued to search their communities and perform successive strings of rescues, two realizations set in. First, many fire departments were losing the ability to keep nonwatercraft apparatus operational. Second, the very houses to which fire departments were responding were often neighbors and friends of department members who were also protecting their communities. Although it is difficult to witness a friend’s or a neighbor’s house being damaged by a storm or fire, most fire department personnel witnessed even greater distress as they saw their own homes suffering the same fate.
|(4) An interior view of typical flooding inside the East Dover (NJ) Fire Company #4 station. [Photo courtesy of East Dover (NJ) Fire Company #4.]|
With roadways completely washed out and oceanside homes sliding down toward lower level bay areas, barrier island fire departments could only watch the destruction occurring in front of them. Among the hardest hit of Ocean County’s 33 communities were the Holgate section of Long Beach Island; the Tuckerton and Silverton communities on the mainland; and the beachfront communities of Seaside Heights, Ortley Beach, Mantoloking, Bay Head, Brick Township, and Point Pleasant. In these communities, the fire departments that had access to military vehicles pressed them into service, converting them into suppression units using sump pumps, small-diameter hose, and any hand tools they could fit on them.
“I am not sure how some fire departments and individual fire department members held it together the way they did,” says Ocean County Chief Fire Coordinator Brian Gabriel. “With every street corner turned, most houses were flooded, crushed, physically moved, or significantly damaged. Much to their credit, the department members, who saw their own homes destroyed, chose to stay on duty and provide assistance for their communities. They never gave it a second thought.”
In Ocean County, when traveling east to the barrier island, two main bridges connect the mainland to Seaside Heights, Seaside Park, and Lavallette. A third bridge connects the middle portion of the mainland to Mantoloking and Bay Head. On Long Beach Island, one bridge provides six communities with their only access to the mainland. As Sandy hit, its high winds, surging waters, and floating debris eliminated the use of all area bridges; just losing access to one bridge is difficult enough for many fire departments. Even as Sandy began to subside, access to bridges could not be immediately restored, keeping barrier island fire departments from adding members and, more importantly, receiving assistance from mutual-aid apparatus. Sandy continued to reorganize barrier island communities into piles of sand, water, and debris.
|(5) A nighttime view of Camp Osborn in Brick Township, where 131 separate fires illuminated the nighttime skies. Fire companies were unable to access this area because of nonpassable roads.|
As night fell on the 29th, Ocean County’s coastline was plunged into total darkness; the only visible light came from the free-burning fires, which could not be suppressed. With no natural light to capture the amount of devastation caused, local fire departments braced for what lay ahead.
As the sunlight began to show the next morning, Mantoloking Fire Department Chief Larry Gilman was among the first of his group to realize that his borough had been historically rearranged. Venturing toward the small borough’s south end, Gilman now had a full view of the Mantoloking Bridge, which now emptied into the Atlantic Ocean. At the east side of the bridge, a massive ocean breach replaced the roadways that previously formed residential streets. Debris and sand had cut the borough in half. With no roads on which to travel, access to the borough’s large homes was now impossible. To complicate matters further, the borough’s firehouse was now fully flooded, its apparatus doors violently removed by Sandy’s winds.
As Gilman completed his initial damage assessment, he quickly realized that it did not matter on which side of the massive breach a fire department stood. All fire apparatus left on the barrier island was going to have difficulty traveling north or south because there were few, if any, physical roads available on which to travel. In places where the roadway was not physically removed by the storm, beach sand and debris from crushed and collapsed houses blocked or vastly rearranged the only routes that could be taken.
As the barrier island began to document the historic devastation, some mainland fire departments quickly realized that they were isolated as well; the bays and lagoons surrounding them rose to record levels. Over the decades, occurrences where the ocean and bay became one body of water were extremely rare; the last time this happened was in 1962. From 1962 until Hurricane Sandy’s arrival, minor tidal flooding had occurred, but the flooding was more of an inconvenience than a devastating hazard.
Before the 30-hour mark of Sandy’s arrival had passed, the flooding not only rewrote history, but it also presented several fire departments with unprecedented challenges to their already overtaxed personnel. Several departments began performing the types of rescues normally confined to tabletop exercises where the proverbial question of “what if” was part of the exercise.
With the barrier island now splintered, front-end loaders, backhoes, and military vehicles became necessary fire apparatus. By morning, each of Ocean County’s 62 fire departments was performing storm-related rescues, conducting fire suppression, or staffing out-of-service stations. As the afternoon progressed, Ocean County’s fire and EMS dispatch center was deluged with reports of multiple working fires and pleas from residents who failed to evacuate.
Just south of Mantoloking, in the beachfront section of Brick Township, 131 separate fires burned in the historic oceanfront section of Camp Osborn. After Sandy had cleared this stretch of the shore, fire department personnel who were physically able to access this area found little left of the Camp Osborn community. The only way to distinguish where homes once stood was by viewing the free-burning natural gas lines in the sand. In less than 30 hours, Camp Osborn was erased from the shore landscape and has yet to be rebuilt.
Opposite Camp Osborn, on the west side of Barnegat Bay, the Silverton section of Toms River Township was partially underwater. Although this area had flooded a few times before, nothing compared to the amount of water the storm was injecting into the bay front section of the community. For Silverton Volunteer Fire Department (SVFD) Chief Robert Sinnott, the daylight hours forced a shift from “storm mode” to “preservation mode” because 90 percent of the department’s membership (including Sinnott) resided in the bay front area that sustained the majority of the storm damage.
Before nightfall on the 30th, the SVFD’s firehouse transitioned from being a “second” home to most members to their only home. For firefighters, residents, and neighbors, Sandy buried most family possessions underwater and made their homes inaccessible. By early evening, this was the scenario in nearly all of Ocean County’s 33 communities.
|(6) An overhead view of Mantoloking Bridge, where the largest ocean breach occurred.|
When the initial damage assessments were completed, local fire departments on the barrier island confronted four critical challenges:
- The lack of an operational water system,
- free-flowing natural gas,
- physical access to structures, and
As the critical challenges were identified, fire protection professionals concluded that any kind of multiple building fire would have been too much for some fire departments to overcome. With daylight hours becoming shorter and patience beginning to wear out more quickly, temporary and long-term solutions to the critical challenges were initiated. Before any of the challenges could be met, every fire department and municipality, still in total darkness, desperately attempted to obtain temporary sources of power.
As 24-hour operations continued to reopen damaged roadways and temporarily restore minimal water pressure, nighttime operations were limited to the few departments that had an operating generator or that had received some very limited resources that allowed the operations to continue.
While boards of fire commissioners, emergency management coordinators, and mayors began prioritizing the items needed to stabilize their communities and firehouses, local chiefs came face to face with a direct test of their leadership skills: Each needed to devise the best way possible to rehabilitate initial responding personnel who refused to stop responding even though Sandy had passed. With communities and fire departments struggling to regain their collective footing, the first few “days after” quickly became the first “week without.” Faced with massive resource shortages, chiefs began contacting Ocean County’s Emergency Management Center hoping requests for critical supplies could be filled.
“In almost all of our practice situations, we include scenarios where multiple municipalities are affected,” explains Lieutenant Keith Klements, Ocean County OEM supervisor. “Generally, most of the scenarios involve some form of communications not being available. In the days immediately following Sandy, most of the communications towers were nonoperational. Cell phone towers were washed away. Landlines, fax machines, and radio systems were mostly eliminated. Cell phone batteries quickly died and could only be recharged on a very limited basis. We relied heavily on ‘face-to-face’ messages, along with stretching the few operating phones and radios we had to their absolute limits. Fuel for emergency service vehicles quickly became a critical issue because most of them were under water or were swept away by the storm.”
Finding alternate communications and fuel sources, while vital, still did not trump the rapidly expanding need for emergency services apparatus, many of which experienced operational issues during the storm and had to be removed from service.
“As soon as we could reestablish better avenues of communication, we realized that many of the fire departments in the county had multiple apparatus out of service, and individual personnel were physically exhausted,” says Ocean County Chief Fire Coordinator Brian Gabriel. “We immediately implemented our out-of-county mutual aid in the form of structural task forces and strike teams from many counties throughout the state. We utilized the New Jersey Emergency Resource Deployment Act through the New Jersey Fire Coordination System with the full support of the New Jersey Division of Fire Safety and Director Bill Kramer.”
Thirty hours after surviving the “Storm of THIS Century,” nearly every county in New Jersey began sending apparatus and personnel, which were assigned to the various geographical areas hit hardest by the storm.
In the weeks and months following Sandy, signs of visible recovery were evident in every municipality. In some municipalities, boardwalks, decks, and businesses have been rebuilt and are now open. Municipal water towers remain filled, and valuable fire hydrants-initially lost-have been replaced.
As local fire departments continue to navigate through the administrative and physical procedures of restaffing firehouses, many Jersey Shore firefighters remain removed from their homes. Many are still trying to recover family items lost during the storm. Collectively, Hurricane Sandy deposited approximately 1,400 boats, 58 homes, multiple vehicles, and countless decks and sunrooms into Barnegat Bay, many of which have yet to be recovered or removed. For many firefighters, it is not known how much personal property can or will ever be recovered.
“Restore the Shore” remains the rally point for those determined to reclaim life near the water. As families and individual members of fire departments have discovered, those who have been strapped into the emotional roller coaster of rebuilding efforts will have to remain strapped in for the time being.
Almost seven months later, some firefighters do not have their homes, and not every community has a fully functional firehouse. (Note: All fire departments on the barrier island are now operational while repairs to their stations continue.)
As the increased quality of technology continues to better preserve recorded history, the thoughts, deeds, and actions of those who served during Hurricane Sandy will be more accurately detailed and forever preserved. When the actions witnessed and the voices heard during those first 30 hours are replayed, today’s technology will make the replay feel almost as realistic as the day it happened.
Individual acts of bravery and compassion and the desire to go “above and beyond” will ultimately blend into the new urban legend created by Hurricane Sandy. These instances will become required talking points when the next generation finds its way into Ocean County firehouses.
● BILL HOPSON is a 35-year veteran of the New Jersey fire service. Since 1986, he has served as a deputy fire marshal for Ocean County, New Jersey. During Hurricane Sandy, Hopson was a lead fire investigator. On the days of and after Sandy, he investigated fires and assessed damage in many of the communities that were hardest hit during the storm.
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